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The Life & Magic of Stewart James (1908-1996)


“A Match For Gravity” (1926)

The trick is – there is no trick.  Try it yourself, and you are in for an experience filled with wonder, as was Stewart James when as a mere boy he discovered this principle. 

— Barrie Richardson

It comes as no surprise that the first magic trick Stewart James published was, like “The Knot of Enchantment,” an effect created by the false assumptions spectators make regarding the relationships between simple objects and the laws of physics.  This trick, whose method is hinted at in the above quotation by Barrie Richardson, can be summarized as follows:

  1. One end of a piece of string is fastened to a kitchen match.
  2. An expensive watch is borrowed from a spectator and tied to the other end.
  3. The magician drapes the watch and string over a wooden pencil held in one hand, while the fingertips of the other hand grasp the match and pull the string taut.
  4. The situation has a menacing look to it and there is an obvious threat to the borrowed watch, which will crash to the ground should the match be released.
  5. Ignoring the possible consequences, the magician lets go of the match.  The watch begins to fall.  Suddenly, the string wraps around the pencil.  The coils of the string grip the pencil tightly, the watch is suspended in midair and the spectator breathes a sigh of relief.

“A Match For Gravity” is especially significant for three reasons.  First, it marks the beginning of Stewart James’ prolific contribution of material to magic books and magazines; second, this trick solidifies his earlier tendency to focus on principles rather than sleight-of-hand techniques; and third, “A Match For Gravity” demonstrates how effects James developed as early as 1926 are still being adapted and performed by magicians today.

In 2005, Barrie Richardson published an adaptation of “A Match For Gravity.”  His routine – titled “Letting Go!” – relies upon the exact same principle as the James version, but changes some of the props used (for example, a wooden kitchen spoon replaces the lead pencil).  Most importantly, Richardson presents the trick as proof that “letting go” of negative emotions or painful memories  often leads to more positive outcomes than we imagine.  The unexpected result following the release of the match (the fact that the borrowed watch does not smash against the floor shortly thereafter) becomes “an exercise in trust, risk-taking, counterintuitive thinking” and more (Richardson 177).  In his version, the moral of the trick is that learning how to let go in life is difficult yet absolutely necessary.

For Stewart James, publishing his first trick, and the many which followed, was also an act of letting go.  Releasing his favorite routines to the greater magic community via print exposed his private ideas to a more public world.  The experience was liberating.  Publishing provided him with a feeling of accomplishment, it connected him to a community of his peers and it acted as a form of rebellion.  Despite the fact that Stewart James was now eighteen-years old, his parents continued to discourage his pursuit of magic.  Living at home meant that his exploration of the art and its secret principles was often restricted by the surveillance of his domineering parents.  He had to find a way to avoid their watchful gaze and to study magic at the same time, but how?




Copyright © 2007 Joe Culpepper and Magicana. All rights reserved.